Isaiah (Part 45): God is Able to Rescue (Ch 41)
Isaiah 41 presents God as the one—the only one—able to rescue. The prophecy is meant, in its immediate context, for God’s people, Judah, while in captivity to Babylon. The entire second half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) concerns God’s rescue. The first of the three subsections involved with God’s rescue (chapters 40-48) focuses on God’s sovereignty. God is the one in control. God can and will make it happen. So here in Isaiah 41, God explains clearly that he alone is able to help.
Verse 1 starts the chapter by calling for a trial. This is not a trial to judge between right and wrong or to condemn for wrongdoing. God calls the nations (islands) to come present their case for why choosing independence from him or dependence on their own idols is better than depending on him. He tells them to “renew their strength.” This refers back to verse 31 of the previous chapter in which God says that he will renew the strength of those trusting in him. It is almost as if 41:1 is a challenge to them: “See if you can renew your strength all by yourself!”
In verse 2 we have a hint of why the nations would be interested in looking for some god or idol to help them. Someone from the east has been stirred up and is threatening the nations. God’s point in the verse is that he is the one who has stirred up this leader. But who is this threat to the nations? Throughout this subsection (chs 40-48), we find reference to this leader in a number of places. We discover that it is Cyrus, the king of the Medes and Persians who will conquer Babylon. Although this particular reference to Cyrus in 41:2-3 seems almost cryptic, taking all the Cyrus references together, we can see more clearly God’s intent to use Cyrus to conquer nations and rescue his people.
Isaiah 41:25 “I have raised up one from the north, and he has come, one from the east who invokes My name. He will march over rulers as if they were mud, like a potter who treads the clay.”
Isaiah 44:26-45:6 I am Yahweh “who says to Cyrus, ‘My shepherd, he will fulfill all My pleasure’ and says to Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Its foundation will be laid.’ The Lord says this to Cyrus, His anointed, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him, to disarm kings, to open the doors before him and the gates will not be shut: ‘I will go before you and level the uneven places; I will shatter the bronze doors and cut the iron bars in two. I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches from secret places, so that you may know that I, Yahweh, the God of Israel call you by your name. I call you by your name, because of Jacob My servant and Israel My chosen one. I give a name to you, though you do not know Me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other; there is no God but Me. I will strengthen you, though you do not know Me, so that all may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is no one but Me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other.”
Isaiah 45:13-14 “’I have raised him up in righteousness, and will level all roads for him. He will rebuild My city, and set My exiles free, not for a price or a bribe,’ says the Lord of Hosts. This is what the Lord says: The products of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush and the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to you and will be yours; they will follow you, they will come over in chains and bow down to you. They will confess to you: God is indeed with you, and there is no other; there is no other God.”
Isaiah 46:11 “I call a bird of prey from the east, a man for My purpose from a far country. Yes, I have spoken; so I will also bring it about.”
Isaiah 48:14-15 “All of you, assemble and listen! Who among the idols has declared these things? The Lord loves him; he will accomplish His will against Babylon, and His arm will be against the Chaldeans. I—I have spoken; yes, I have called him; I have brought him, and he will succeed in his mission.”
These references show Cyrus the Persian to be God’s implement by which his people would be released from their bondage. And certainly we can see the double reference beyond the Jews in captivity to Babylon. God’s people in captivity to sin will be rescued by God’s appointed Savior, our Lord Jesus.
Back in chapter 41 we read that God fairly shouts the news that this leader subduing nations has come about because God has performed it (41:6). So the nations are fearful. What do they do? The decide that they need a god to lead them and deliver them. And they set about to make one. Verses 5 through 7 are almost laughable if it weren’t so sad for them and for those of our current generation who do the exact same thing. They try to encourage each other through their own efforts in fashioning an idol, hoping that it can even stand up on its own without falling over.
This contrasts distinctly with verses 8 through 10. Here, it is not humankind that fashions a god, but rather God who calls and chooses his people. Notice the chiasm:
41:5 Nations are afraid
41:6 Nations depend on each other
41:7 Nations’ god comes from their hands
41:8 God’s people come from his choice
41:9 God’s people depend on God
41:10 God’s people need not fear
In verses 11 through 14 we see that God’s people will be victorious, but it will happen not because of them but rather because of God. The enemies of God’s people will become as nothing. Verse 12 says that God’s people will look for their enemies but will not find them. This speaks of the victory not resulting from the people themselves. The enemy is taken away before God’s people even turn to look. Verse 14 is not an insult to Judah. God calls them a worm to show their absolute helplessness. Their rescue is all of God without any contributed ability from his people. This is a turnabout from God’s enemies. Notice that God’s enemies become nothing in verse 11. However, God’s people go from nothing (the worm) to rulers with God. That’s the point behind emphasizing, “Your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” Israel means more than someone striving with God (striving with, not against). Israel means ruling with God—being prince with God.
Again we have a chiasm, but this time separated by some verses. In 41:10 God says not to fear because he is Immanuel—he is with his people. He also says that he is their God—their caregiver. And then he says that he will STRENGTHEN for the task, HELP them achieve, and HOLD them so they will not fall back. We read this in chiastic reverse order in verses 13-14. God HOLDS their hand and promises to HELP them who are as helpless as a worm, who need to be and will be STRENGTHENED.
Immediately two ideas are developed. God will protect in verses 15 and 16. And God will supply needs in verses 17 through 20.
In verse 21 we are drawn back into the scene. This is a trial—a trial to show by comparison that there is no comparison between God’s rescue and feeble human effort. We can look at the chapter so far keeping in mind the trial scene:
- Verse 1 was the call to the trial to determine who is able to rescue.
- Verses 2-4 showed that it was God who called Righteousness to subdue the nations.
- Verses 5-7 mocked the nations’ fear in trying to make their own gods for protection.
- Verses 8-14 showed that God chose and had protected and cared for his people.
- Verses 15-20 emphasized that God would continue to protect and care for his people.
- Verses 21-24 now begins by asking, “What good are the nations’ idols?” (or, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?”)